Was Your Ancestor a Fireman? – 5 Ways to Start the Search


Although very few of my ancestors were what I would call an “official” fireman, that is someone who worked full-time in that profession, I do have several who served as volunteers in the mid-1800s in San Francisco, which has sparked my interest. And a few 3rd and 4th cousins also served as professional firemen in Oakland, California.

Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in forming the first American volunteer fire department in Philadelphia in 1736. But volunteer fire departments existed in other countries well before the 1700’s. And I suspect that a few of your ancestors were either professional or volunteers as well. It is quite a nice surprise to find that in addition to their “regular jobs” that they were volunteer fire personnel.

Fortunately for me, the San Francisco Genealogy website has a set of links to lists of Fire Department personnel. It is through these lists that I found the name of my great great grandfather and a couple of my great great uncles who served in Hook and Ladder companies. Knowing this just expands the richness of the life stories that are now being discovered about these and other ancestors.

Were your ancestors firemen, either as a profession or as a volunteer? There are a lot of resources that can be found online, however department personnel records from the past are likely found in file cabinets somewhere in city, county, and other fire department record locations. With a few friendly phone calls or other communications, you can set up a time to go and search through to find your ancestors’ personnel records. Just like searching through other “file-cabinet based records collections” being kind and patient might get you the opportunity to find what you are looking for.

But if you want to start your search online, here are a few places to try:

  • Cyndi’s List has links to 24 different places where firefighting history as well as personnel are provided.
  • The Fire Museum Network has a directory of fire museums across the U.S. as well as internationally. Communicating with these museums might help find where personnel records are held and can be researched, which will likely lead you to a file cabinet somewhere.
  • The New York City Fire Museum has a terrific website, chock full of interesting information. The Resources Page has links to fire history sites for other states and cities.
  • The Indianapolis Fire Department Roster is available online. This was created by a volunteer and is an example of  an online database that has been created to find your fire fighting ancestors.
  • The aforementioned San Francisco Lists of Fire Department Personnel.

Searching newspapers and city directories may provide lists of fire department personnel as well, so you do not want to overlook those resources..

As one who has had several ancestors and relatives die by fire, I am grateful to any and all who have served as firefighters, either as professionals or as volunteers. Sometimes we just hear about deaths and damage, and not about lives and property that have been saved by these valiant men and women.

If you know of any other resources that would help folks in their search for fire fighting ancestors, please list them in the comments.


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      1. Hi again Kenneth!
        It seems the URL of the page I posted last year doesn’t work anymore so I advise researchers to use archive.org “wayback machine” or download a pdf file still available from Jim Sponholz railroad genealogical materials (probably some fireman in there) here freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sponholz/records.pdf
        or for B&M Railroad Employee Lists (no specific mention of firemen) to check here http://library.uml.edu/clh/BMlistA.htm

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